As this great nation approaches the 21st century, it's clear that the old ways of doing things won't work in the future the way they did in the first three decades following World War II.

The future holds a double-edged sword for Americans with the potential of a continued drop in living standards if certain economic trends are not reversed as well as the potential for greatly improved life styles if the country is able to capitalize on new discoveries and technologies. In any case, the choices facing us are as diverse as they are difficult.Now is the time to set the nation's course for a productive, healthy future by a thorough examination and overhauling of outmoded public policies for sectors ranging from business regulations to public education.

A newly released four-year study by the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, points to the urgency of rethinking our public policies and implementing far-reaching policies to assure America regains a dynamic and growing economy.

Among the better recommendations of the non-partisan agency is the elimination of the corporate income tax. Eliminating this tax, a long-sought goal of President Reagan, would encourage productive investments and aid in corporate America's fight to keep and regain a competitive edge with foreign competitors.

Too much technology developed in the United States is exported to other countries, particularly in Asia, and then imported back into this country in the form of consumer products. The effects of this technology drain are twofold: jobs are lost here and dollars are sent abroad, exacerbating the balance of trade problem.

For American industry to compete on a worldwide basis, it must learn to convert home-grown technology to consumer products that can be sold in other countries as well as at home.

An incentive for industry is called for and the Office of Technology Assessment believes unshackling industry by getting rid of the corporate income tax and excessive regulations that limit the emergence of business structures more compatible with emerging technologies is the ticket.

Despite the 1986 tax-overhaul law, corporate income taxes, while raising little revenue compared to the individual income tax, still drives business decisions irrespective of their overall impact on the economy, the report says. In addition, it says the corporate tax discourages savings because of the double taxation of income, first at the corporate level and then on dividends paid to individuals.

And, speaking of dividends paid to people, perhaps the greatest dividend a worker can have is a good education. That fact has been driven home pointedly in recent years as smokestack industries, particularly in the Midwest and East, have closed, leaving millions of untrained workers out in the cold and in too many instances, finding themselves unemployable because of a lack of needed skills.

As traditional industries scale back their need for labor or disappear entirely under competitive worldwide pressures, it's vital that workers be enabled to transfer smoothly to new jobs with new skills. As industry reaffirms its commitment to meeting global competition, it will need highly skilled workers.

The report points out workers' success in the new industrial environment is likely to depend critically on the extent to which the nation's education system gives them basic skills and the ability and opportunity to upgrade knowledge and skills continuously.

The report warns that most people will need to endure a period of great uncertainty in coming years as an increasing number of businesses undergo structural changes by streamlining their operations and even moving their facilities away from their traditional bases.

With the life expectancies of many major industries being reduced from many decades to just a few unpredictable years in some cases, workers need all the help they can get to remain employed and employable. The federal government should use its resources to see that education in the latest, most-in-demand skills is made available to all workers.

Seeing that workers have the opportunity to stay employed would pay big benefits to the national economy, plus give American industry a competitive edge in having a highly trained labor pool to meet global competition.